Perhaps the first time most people heard of the World Trade Organization (WTO) was in November 1999, with a meeting of the WTO in Seattle accompanied by protests. The protests certainly made for some colourful media coverage, with much talk of ‘violent protests’ (little mention of violent police) and news headline catchphrases like "The Battle in Seattle". But there was also, for the first time in North America, some serious discussions in the media about what the WTO is, and what it does. People began to note that the WTO can decide that health, environment, industrial and social policies adopted on our behalf, by our governments, are trade barriers that must be struck down. People in the United States learned, for example, about a WTO ruling against a U.S. law aimed at conserving endangered sea turtles- a ban on shrimp caught in nets without a turtle-exclusion devices.
Fast forward to 2003. In Montreal, a WTO mini-ministerial meeting has been hastily convened by Trade Minister Pierre Pettigrew, for July 28-30, to prepare for this year’s big meeting in Cancun, Mexico. And, once again, protests are being planned in the hope that the resulting confrontation will put the WTO on the national agenda.
It shouldn’t have to be this way. Considering the importance we attach to our economy and to our public services, you’d think that a far reaching global agreement affecting the way we work and do business would have been discussed seriously what is supposed to be democratic society before we’d signed on to it. No such luck. The WTO came into existence in 1995, but how many people in North America had even heard of the WTO prior to the Seattle protests?
Since its 1995 inception, the WTO’s guiding principle has been that it’s unfair to make a company wanting to do business in another country adapt to that country’s requirements. Instead, the country must be made to adapt to the company’s requirements. Now Canada is negotiating with other countries on reducing ‘trade barriers’ on services. This means getting rid of foreign ownership limitations, local hiring requirements, and restrictions on profit repatriation and capital flight. In other words, transnational companies are to be given more power and fewer responsibilities – the ‘free market’ in the name of ‘free trade’.
The worst thing about WTO rules is how they lock us into this free market model of economic development. It’s one thing to elect a government that believes in free market policies. It’s quite another to be bound to such policies, so that electing a more interventionist government makes no difference. Who ever asked the citizens of Canada if they wanted to live under WTO rules? Who are the people who come up with these rules, and in whose interest? These are questions that need discussion. Instead, the government of Canada is embarking on another round of WTO negotiations, without consulting the people of Canada.
In such a context, protests against the WTO of the sort that will happen in Montreal July 28-30, are a messy, inconvenient necessity.
PAUL BEAULIEU is a Montreal-area theatrical activist working with Montreal Mobilization Against the WTO. He can be reached at: email@example.com